They walked out of the high-rise one-by-one. Twenty minute intervals between their departures.
Each took a different route to the rendezvous.
One, dressed as a midnight maintenance staffer, waited for the #4 bus.
Another drove someone else’s sedan out of the parking structure. He was so careful to pay with the right credstick that his hands shook at the reader.
The girl biked past Central Park to uptown.
The last man took a taxi and tried to focus on anything but the money. Those teras of paydata clogging up his personal network. That money was fresh, clean, its implications staggering. That’s just how it felt. Shiny new omnipotence. Elation and nerves. Some guilt.
The last man out tipped his driver well, but not well enough for the man to recount the story to his wife later. He walked the final two miles to his condo, where the rest waited.
But the work wouldn’t be over until he was someone else, somewhere else.
At his place, the four of them drank and laughed and watched the ticker on the all-night market report. If it dipped before morning, there would be trouble getting out of town. The NASDAQ held strong, climbing with the sunrise.
He smiled at his friends quietly. No one in their field had ever done this before. Nothing this big.
He poured the drinks.
The girl fell asleep first. Too suddenly. One moment she was stretching back over his sofa, letting her shirt ride up for him, and then she was out.
Mark, the kid, checked out immediately after, smacking his head on the mag-table.
Hector went for his pistol, but he was too slow. The last man had his reflexes triggered, and he leapt at the giant in the janitor’s uniform. He ripped Hector’s gun away, scrambled over the couch, and wrapped his arm around his friend’s tree-trunk neck, squeezing with his amped musculature replacement.
The two of them had gone to school together. Were kids together.
Hector tried to find the last man’s eyes with his thumbs, but he grew weaker by the second, until finally he was unconscious.
The last man out checked his network for the Methodist drones. Two patrolled within range of heartbeats. He readied his razor. Saw his friends’ chests rise and fall. Tried not to think about all the years they worked together.
The drone icons left the range, and he did the work. Three quick swipes, and their blood stained the couch, pooled on the tile, tiny tributaries riding the grout. The girl gurgled, but the other two died silently. He was halfway to the elevator before he realized he’d forgotten to steal their networks.
He went back, swiped the comms, and when he finally stopped moving, he was in an identity clinic in Tehran, installing a new bone structure. A new name. New hair color. He spent half of what he’d stolen on hacked family records that went back three-hundred years. A vast fortune laundered to immaculate.
He spent six months in a zero-G orgy that orbited the moon. Another on the coast of Alaska, working on a fishing boat for the stories. He lived poor for the excitement, and luxuriously for the relaxation. His money made money, never stopped making money, and whenever a new accountant saw the totals, they just stammered.
The last man out had won.
But the gurgling never really stopped.
For the first few days after Theresa told me to get lost, I watched a lot of TV and drank all the wine coolers in my parents’ fridge. Back in the Cities, whenever I’d faced rejection, I’d always seen it as an opportunity to edit an ill-conceived relationship from my general ledger; and then I could move forward with my life, opening the books to stronger bonds with better, cooler people.
But Theresa wasn’t some uptight jagoff who couldn’t take a joke. She was my kid’s mom, and she preferred our daughter to grow up without a father—even though I was around, and I didn’t have anything else better to do.
That stung me in a way that I hadn’t expected. I thought all parents were a net positive value. After all, my own father was so great for me: he raised me, paid for my school, and let me back into his house after I’d fucked up every bit of success that he’d set me up to enjoy. And even though I turned out to be kind of a shitty kid, I wondered how much worse I could have been without his kindness and influence.
At the time, in those days that felt like the lowest I would ever sink, he brought home brochures for post-baccalaureate programs at State, and got me to help him on a few home improvement projects. Little things to boost me up and show that hadn’t given up on me yet.
So I had to get out of that house.
Most of my old running crew was firmly entrenched in Theresa’s camp, and their phones went straight to voicemail just like hers did. But one of my buddies from high school, James, was still around, and he’d always been a solo social operator. A guy who could float around cliques, and not get mired in their tired routines and prejudices.
I made a trip to use the library’s free internet to find his profile on Facebook, and sent a message.
I tried to check out Theresa’s page too, but she either wasn’t into social networking, or more likely, she blocked me.
James responded in less than five minutes.
Ahoy, old friend. I hope life finds you brilliant, electric, aflame and shooting through the black sky that is this rancid, lower midwest. I’m not being scathing or backhanded, I promise. Dinner this week. You are forbidden to decline.
What do you know about Ponzi schemes?
We’ll chat at dinner. Kiss me, you fool.
Two days later, I met James at Red Lobster.
Sitting at a table under a giant ship wheel, he was dressed in a sharply tailored suit with a blood red Oxford underneath. Looking at the diners’ sidelong glances, it seemed they were all acutely aware of this solitary figure, and curious about who would be showing up to sell his soul to him.
“Brother,” he said, standing up, embracing me. “You look exquisite.”
I was amazed. James hadn’t lost his hair or gained a pound. He looked almost exactly the same as he did before I left for college.
A nearby waitress was taking another table’s order, but James interrupted her to demand two Jack and Cokes. He grinned at me, as though his bullying of the waitress was an ironic statement on the bullying of waitresses in general. But I remembered that with James, you could never really tell.
“I want to hear everything,” James commanded. “Begin now. Story of your life since high school.”
I did his bidding and told all. About grad school, my work, my debt, and my layoff. I told him more about me than I had to anyone in years, and across the table I saw rapt interest, and sympathy and compassion in all the right places. So I kept going.
But I never brought up Molly.
And when I was done talking, our meal was nearly finished, and I apologized to James for carrying on as long as I had. For not asking him anything about his own life.
“Nonsense,” he said, cutting me off with a clean swipe of his fork. “You’ve had a difficult year, you’ve earned the right to prattle and complain. But we’re back together again. And you must remember that we’re young, intelligent, and attractive white men. This world is ours. I will remind you of this.” He ripped a shrimp of its tail with his teeth, and gulped it down with the contents of his full tumbler. Watching this joyous, ravenous hunger, I toasted to James and slammed back my own drink.
When we’d graduated from high school, James stayed in Terre Haute to attend State, while I headed south to Bloomington. He really got into drugs then, and I pledged Greek—not necessarily mutually exclusive life choices, but when combined with the distance between schools, our amicable separation was imminent.
But here we were, stumbling out of a Red Lobster parking lot together, dreaming of sucking the marrow out the whole world again. And if I was too irresponsible to even be considered as a functional parent, I figured I should at least dive in and enjoy the destructive bliss of fucking up hard and often. That whole night felt like a beginning, and I didn’t think I’d had one of those in a very long time.
James paid for dinner if I agreed to pay for entertainment. When I told him I only brought fifty dollars, he told me that I could get the next one.
He saw my Audi in the mall parking lot, and he insisted that I drive. I tried to explain to him that I was pretty drunk.
“You can drive that car drunk, or I can drive that car drunk. Either way, that beautiful machine is our transportation.”
I drove through the Terre Haute streets pulled by a warm current that hummed in my ears and muscles. Following James’ instructions, I turned into the ramshackle neighborhoods of North Terre Haute. This was the worst part of town, where he insisted that I just roll through the red lights.
“It’s Terre Haute,” I told him, relishing my worldliness, seemingly my first advantage over him the whole night. “It ain’t North Minneapolis.”
He just growled a sarcastic little laugh. “Well, haven’t you been gone a long time.”
I ran the reds. We’d spent over three hours at Red Lobster, and it was coming up on 11 o’clock, which was like three a.m. in any other city.
James made a call on his cell and flirted with someone on the other end. He told whomever it was that he was bringing a friend.
I felt his eyes on me in the dark. “I’d say he’s handsomely damaged,” he told the other person, before saying bye and hanging up.
“Are you going to tell me where we’re going?”
“Yes. But isn’t it more fun to be surprised?” He liked the power of his secret, and I liked that someone went to the trouble of planning something for me. So I kept following his instructions. Left here. Right, there. Which led to an old mansion across the street from an abandoned factory that used to make plate glass. I wasn’t thrilled about parking the Audi there, but he insisted that if I parked in the driveway, around back, nobody would see it.
The mansion had been converted to a commercial building, and bright flyers advertising available office space decorated its dirty porch and frosted front windows. James hit the buzzer, and it was the only sound for a half-mile all around us.
“Yeah?” crackled a woman’s voice on the intercom.
“That you, Vince?”
“But of course. Harold’s here too.”
My name isn’t Harold.
“Come up.” We heard the door unlatch, and I followed James inside and up the staircase, dimly lit by old-timey sconces. When we turned at the landing, two women stood waiting for us. They were dressed in short, tight skirts, speaking Spanish and smoking cigarettes. When they saw us, they dropped their smokes on the floor, stamping them out right there.
James insisted that we receive our massages in the same room so that we could share the experience. One of the girls said that it would cost him an extra fifty. He gave the women an extra hundred, telling them he worked at LJS, and as such, he could afford the very best service. Then he gave them another hundred.
“I’m really happy you’re back, man,” he whispered as we took off our clothes. “We’re gonna burn this town to ashes.”
James was evasive whenever I asked what he did for a living, so I stopped asking after the first couple of hangouts or dates or whatever you want to call them. But after two weeks of partying and vomiting together it was starting to get weird that I didn’t know what LJS was. I speculated that it might have been a law firm because James wore a suit wherever we went and he loved spending money. But Google searches turned up no such thing. No engineering offices, no architecture firms either.
So one night, after the girls we met at some bar staggered out the door, I decided that I would put the question to him, and not accept anything short of the truth.
“Hey man, what do you do?”
“I fuck and I breathe,” he said.
“I’m serious. What do you do? For like, a job?”
“I’ve told you. LJS. I’m very important there.”
“Yeah, yeah, but what the fuck is LJS?”
He smiled wide. “Oh, all right. It’s Long John Silvers.”
I just stared at him. Mostly because I was too high to do anything else. I couldn’t even feel my face.
James explained that he was the store manager of the greasiest Long John Silvers on the banks of Wabash River. The money was shit. But James claimed there were perks: he made a fortune selling pot and pills out the back door. Also, he did the hiring, so the staff was made-up of the sluttiest tenth-graders he could find.
“The fish place?” I mumbled.
“We have chicken, too. Fuckin french fries. Hush puppies. It’s not just a fish place.”
I told him that I was surprised, because I always thought that he was smart enough to do anything. Which, I guess was like rubbing it in. But he’d been representing his career as something completely different than what it actually was, and I still felt a little betrayed.
“I appreciate that,” he said. “Thank you for your words.”
James sparked up another joint. “But let me tell you something about me.” He took a long puff. “At Long John Silver’s, I am a God.
“I can add and subtract. I have the ability to reason deductively. I do that job hungover, high, underslept, and debauched. And it just doesn’t matter. I speak, and my word on the backline is the holy gospel. Plus, I hand out the uniforms.” He wagged his eyebrows.
I pictured the counter at James’ fish place and imagined four chesty, underage bimbos tugging at their shrink-wrap polo shirts.
“And that’s fulfilling to you?” I asked.
“You know when I truly got happy? When I stopped asking myself that question.” Then he belched loud enough for his neighbor to pound on the wall.
The following week, I was back working at my old bookstore. My former boss was still in charge, and I didn’t even have to interview. Because my resume made mention of my career in international finance, he even asked me if I wanted to be a co-manager.
I said, “Nah.”
I didn’t think I was ready for that kind of responsibility.
That whole summer I thought about Molly and Theresa, like, twice. Most of my time and attention was spent with James, soaking up whatever excess we could find together.
He got us thrown out of everywhere. Movie theaters, bars, even Pizza Hut once, when he threatened to slap the manager’s face with his dick. We deserved it every time we got tossed, but it made me feel alive by proxy just to watch him operate. James said his peace every time, any time, without a flinch.
If anyone objected to his behavior, he cut into their bad haircuts, bad skin, and bad breath with a surgeon’s precision, humiliating them down to their basest elements. And while he always took it too far, I never questioned him about it. He made me believe that the people on the other end of his wrath had worked hard to earn their fates.
It went the other way too. For the cute little redhead who waitressed at a dive sandwich shop, he’d leave 20 dollar tips just because she always wore yoga pants. For a Starbucks barista who accidentally upsized his latte for free, he wrote the corporate office a seven paragraph e-mail that sang of exemplary customer service. He loved minimum-wagers and counter-culturals. He claimed that those bums and unshaven record store hipsters of Terre Haute were “his people.”
James called himself karma’s agent, and doled out rewards and punishment as though he were the town’s very own deity. And I lived as his favorite pet, drinking his drinks and sharing the handjobs we bought together.
At the bookstore, I was on the counters on evenings and weekends, and there I struck up a few breezy friendships with the college kids with whom I worked. I was honest about where I was from and why I was back at my parents’ house, and it was great because they didn’t give me that awful Minnesotan sympathy when I joked my way through my financial ruin. They chuckled, told me that my story was a bummer, and invited me to their parties, which were fantastic. If I wasn’t with James, I was out late with my coworkers, drinking, smoking, and enjoying myself completely for the first time since I left the Cities.
And there were girls again: sloe-eyed sophomores and juniors from Indiana State who worked in the bookstore’s cafe and liked to go for rides in my Audi. After we closed up for the night, I would take them out to White Construction’s airfield off of Highway 63 and punch the gas until they gripped the dashboard, laughing and shrieking. I got pretty good at throwing the emergency brake and skidding to a hard, twisting stop, just like in the movies.
I banged every girl who worked in that store. Even the co-managers.
In fact, I was in the bedroom of a psychology major’s apartment late one September night when James called. I stopped what I was doing and picked up.
“James,” I said.
“Code red emergency. I need you to lead a sortie. Mission briefing, my apartment, twenty minutes. Tell me where you are.”
“I’m nowhere.” I said. And then I put on my clothes.
Fifteen minutes later, I was in my friend’s living room, sharing a bong with a mixed crowd of Long John Silvers’ employees, and a few acquaintances from James’ party life.
James didn’t lack for friends, but there were only two people in the apartment in their thirties.
James was hooking up his laptop to his plasma screen. I noticed the tiny redhead from Maurizio’s in the corner with a friend, laughing and holding a can of beer with both hands like it was a hot chocolate. I waved to her, and she walked over.
“You got here fast,” she said. Because James had asked her the last time we were there, I knew that she was just barely seventeen, but she spoke with all the poise of a marketing professional in her late twenties.
“He called,” I said.
“Do you always do what he tells you?”
“Yes,” I smiled.
The girl laughed. “Why?”
“Because when I was a kid, I always wanted a friend like him,” I said. “And then I had to leave here, and he was gone.”
I could have prattled on about how I’d never met such a team guy since, about whatever it was he was about to propose to all of us in this room, it was going to be insanely fun and dangerous, and we were going to do it as one, together, and feel so much a part of something that not one of us could imagine what loneliness was like, not for whole weeks afterward. But I didn’t say all that. The girl was young and bright, and she could appreciate the mystery left by stopping short.
“I’m Kristen,” she said.
I shook her hand and she sat next to me, her leg just barely brushing mine. I looked to her friend, who was tongue kissing some grease-stained LJS associate.
“Ahem,” James called out, and the room came to a quick silence.
He surveyed the room sternly, and people laughed, but not too loudly. We all anxiously anticipated what would come next.
James spoke. “Little Johnny approaches his mother and asks, ‘Is it true that babies come from storks?’”
“‘Why yes,’ says Little Johnny’s mother.”
“‘Do storks ever have abortions?’ the boy asks.”
“The mother stops, laughs and then says, ‘Yes. But only the poor, black ones.’”
The room broke out into a sudden caustic guffaw, drunk kids all falling over each other in response to a joke that I found more racist than funny. But I was right there laughing, with Kristen leaning into me, burying her face into my shoulder, convulsing.
“THESE,” James shouted with a smirk, silencing the room again. “These are words that ended my employment at LJS today!”
The room booed in unison.
James explained that a customer complaint to the HQ hotline did him in. And while he didn’t know the customer responsible, he was incensed that Jason, his district manager, did not stand up for him. And for this, Jason would pay dearly.
James laid out his three-phase attack on Jason’s house, which was probably the most destructive thing any of us would ever do. When he asked if we were in, I volunteered to lead the first wave. After that, the rest of the teenage miscreants couldn’t resist, and James and I divided up the teams.
We were the defenders of speech, of character, and of identity from the humorless pricks who owned everything. It was our ragtag band versus the evil corporations that polluted the air, made us fat, raided our 401(k)s. Shit man, we were the righteous poor smiting the evil rich. James made it sound like God had signed off on the mission.
Kristen signed up for my team and just seeing that girl, who was more sexy and confident than any seventeen-year-old had the right to be, I threw away every reservation I might have had otherwise.
At 2 a.m. the next night, Kristen and I snuck onto Jason’s property, which was a small farmhouse on the outskirts of Terre Haute. Silently, we unfurled a length of a 200-foot, thin, white rope into the figure of a giant penis and balls. We’d met that afternoon in Deming Park to get the hang of how to shape the rope. Kristen marked the rope with tape at all the points where it was supposed to curve, and we kissed under a tree for another hour after that. Her lips were sweet and full and tasted like the peppermint schnapps she’d stolen from her stepmother.
While we laid down the rope at the farmhouse, James was with team #3 crouched on the far side of Jason’s PT Cruiser, jacking it up under both passenger side tires with jacks from the largest trucks in our group’s possession.
Team #2, the largest group containing all the idiots, laid in wait behind a perimeter of trees with rotten eggs and paper bags full of the shit of our pets. Even Scooter had contributed to the munitions.
James slapped the door of the cruiser signaling he was ready. The car was tipped to its side at a 45 degree angle, and looked like it could flip over with just a forceful breath. Kristen and I poured gasoline and lighter fluid all over the rope, ensuring total saturation. When we met up at the balls, we held hands and ran back to the base of the shaft, prepping our fireworks and fuse. We lit the fuses and sprinted like we were in a Vietnam movie, as the Black Cats and Alarm Trippers began artillery blasting behind us.
Kristen and I fell in behind team #2 and grabbed hold of each other’s waists, laughing and squeezing each other as the giant lawn penis roared into a beautiful, monstrous bright flame. The lights went on in the house, and Team #3 readied the eggs. When the front door opened, Jason, a pot-bellied man in a bathrobe roared the words, “WHAT THE FUCK.”
That’s when James and Team #3 flipped over Jason’s car. It rolled over in slow motion. The landing shattered the windows, sent the car sliding down the driveway’s wet grass embankment.
“WHAT THE FUCK!” Jason began to take steps toward James and Team #3.
And then we emerged from the woods, timed perfectly, charging past the burning cock, and pelting the Long John Silver’s district manager with bad eggs and excrement.
“I’ll fucking kill you. I’ll call the cops,” the man whimpered, running back into his house, covering his already ruined face and hair.
We laid waste to everything. His windows, his porch and his front door. With my double cartons of spoiled eggs, I broke from formation and tossed them up high, landing several on the roof and in the gutters. Around the corner of the house, I found the man’s chainsaw art, logs painstakingly buzzed into the shape of bears and moose and about five huge carvings of an old, sleeping dog he was torturing himself over, and I egged the shit out of those until I was empty.
James fired off a second round of fireworks, which served as our evac prompt. En masse, we retreated from the lawn and back into the cars we left parked at a crossroads half a klick away, all of us pointed in different directions to make for the best escape. Kristen slid into the passenger seat of the Audi, and I dropped the hammer, jolting out into the darkness, before we could fasten our seatbelts or turn on the headlights.
The mission had zero casualties. All fourteen of us made it back to James’ apartment without hearing one siren.
I spent the next several hours very, very drunk. James rented a keg for the occasion, and set-up a fancy grilled cheese bar with gruyere, havarti, and absinthe. He toasted to me several times, dubbing me his Master Cocksman. I raised my glass with him as we drank, and smoked, and drank, and recounted the play-by-play of our attack on Jason’s house, and drank. And there, in that throng of dumbasses, underachievers, and aspiring Barely Legal models, I wondered if I’d ever felt happier in my entire life.
Once I was in the bathroom, my mood dropped off a cliff. Maybe I was suffering instant withdrawal from the wild euphoria outside, but I thought about those carvings I egged. The dog especially, and why there were so many renditions of it. Part of me wanted to swerve all the way home, split a yogurt with Scooter and give him a hug. Or just turn myself in.
I looked at the mirror. Thirty years old, with an MBA, graying just a touch at the temples, dating teenagers and vandalizng the homes of strangers.
I told the mirror “Good talk,” and floated back to the party.
I sat on a couch next to some unconscious Mexican kid who seemed to have pissed his pants under one of James’ throw pillows. I think I was the only person who noticed. Another guy was firing up a meth pipe at the dining room table. And I just sat there, watching whatever was on TV, and polished off the half of a grilled cheese that someone left next to an ashtray.
I saw Kristen wandering slowly around the living room, like she’d suffered a concussion. When she saw me, recognition followed close behind, and stumbled my way and crashed onto my lap. The coma patient next to us scooted a little further away, and I felt briefly insulted.
“Hi handsome,” she slurred, throwing her arms around my neck.
“Handsome? Old man, more like it.”
“You’re not that old. You’re what, like thirty-six, thirty-seven tops?”
“Forty,” I said.
She laughed, and I could smell rum all over her. “You look great for forty.” She leaned in even closer. “James said I could use his bedroom. With you.”
I looked at James, who was grinning at me from the bar, tipping a martini glass at me.
And I don’t know why, but I asked for some time to sober up. Then I’d be good to go wherever she wanted.
Kristen’s face slowly turned sour. She rolled off of me, raising her voice over the din of the party. “Is something wrong with me?”
I just sat there. “No. Nothing.”
“Are you, like, fucking leading me on?”
“Why would I do that?” I asked, but I knew exactly why—I led her on because she was young and vibrant and happy, and I felt like the opposite of all those things all the time.
“You need to figure out what the fuck you want,” she said, stumbling away.
I felt people looking at me, and that was totally fine. I just stayed sitting on the couch, and before long, I fell into an uneasy sleep.
Maybe an hour or two later, James woke me up. His eyes were bloodshot, and his lips and teeth were stained with wine and he smelled like chemicals.
“Hey, brother. I gotta favor to ask you.”
I rubbed my face. “Sure, man, what do you need?”
“Kristen. We got to talking, and um, I think she wants me to hit that. You okay? I mean, is that cool with you?”
I was taken back, but the room was still in motion from the absinthe, and I wasn’t really in a position to get off the couch. I looked for Kristen, but I couldn’t find her.
Prompted by nothing, James told me that she was already in his bedroom.
“Yeah?” I grinned at him because I wanted him to keep liking me. “Go get it, dude. Don’t let me hold you up.”
“You’re a cool motherfucker, you know that? I love you, man.”
“I love you too, buddy.”
James stretched over and planted a wet kiss on my cheek.
“I won’t forget this. You get the next ten girls.”
“Who’s keeping score?” I faked a smile.
He stood up and disappeared around the corner. And then I was out cold. This time I didn’t dream or toss or smell the apartment’s smells. I just blacked out, and when I opened my eyes again, daylight poured in through the windows and the whole place was even more trashed than I remembered it. Fast food uniforms and people and PBR spills were strewn everywhere, like a tornado ripped through a trailer park and killed everyone.
I must have been saving up every drop of booze that summer for this hangover. With my stomach in open rebellion from the rest of my body, I moved in slow motion as I scoured the party trash for my personal effects. My head pounded, and I had to stop to steady myself on the wall, which was unsettlingly sticky.
I found one of my sneakers, and gave up my favorite black hoodie for ruined. While I was looking for my missing shoe, Kristen came down the stairs from James’ bedroom. I looked up and said good morning, and saw that she was weeping quietly and unsteady on her legs.
She stopped and looked at me for what seemed like a long time. It felt like she needed a grown up then, or at least a sober friend to get her out of there, get her cleaned up. But I wasn’t that guy. I was James’ friend, forever twenty-one, standing there like an idiot, and wishing I’d stayed on the couch so that I could fake being asleep.
Kristen’s face broke in a hard sob, and she spun away, finding her purse dumped out on the floor next to the table. She kneeled down, gathered her things, and wept. I watched her walk out of the apartment.
She left the front door wide open behind her.
I listened for her car to pull away. When it did, I walked out of the apartment, quit the bookstore that morning, and I never saw James again.